Stefan Palios, a 31-year-old sales and marketing consultant for tech start-ups, and Marty Butler, a 31-year-old registered nurse and organ-donation coordinator
After two years of dating, Marty moved into Stefan’s one-bedroom, 450-square-foot apartment in downtown Toronto in May of 2019. The place was small but a real steal. Together, they paid a combined $1,450 a month thanks to rent control. It wasn’t long after Stefan and Marty started cohabitating that they began talking about how long they saw themselves staying in the city. At the time, Marty was mid-way through a master’s degree in nursing at the University of Toronto, so they figured they’d postpone moving—or talk of moving—until after he graduated. That timeline accelerated dramatically when Stefan and Marty found themselves cooped up inside with their cat, Arthur, during the pandemic. “I was in one corner of the living room at a desk and Marty was in the other corner, on the edge of the couch, trying to study,” Stefan recalls. “Our plan switched from talking about leaving in June of 2021 to, ‘We want to be gone by June of 2021.’”
At first, Stefan and Marty considered upgrading to a larger place within city limits—specifically, an older brick townhouse. With a budget of $600,000, they could only afford a two-bedroom condo (or a one-plus-den). They toured roughly 10 properties in the early days of their search, but couldn’t find any that felt like home. (In Stefan’s words, “they didn’t pass the vibe check.”) One night, diverting from his usual listing search, Stefan found an ad for an 11-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot castle in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia that had sold for just under $850,000. Stefan had harboured a fascination with castles since he studied the medieval times in grade school, and, like most kids, secretly dreamed of living in one. The Cape Breton property’s selling price made him realize his dream might not be so outlandish after all.
Stefan started searching for castle-esque properties on Realtor.ca, which is where he found a $150,000 Victorian mansion in Digby, N.S. It sat on eight acres of ocean-adjacent land, but needed a complete gut job and was two-and-a-half hours from Halifax by car. Still, the listing made him feel as though his world had opened up. “I knew you could buy European castles for the price of a Toronto condo, but realizing similar properties existed in Canada excited me,” he says. Together, Stefan and Marty compiled a checklist of their future home’s must-haves: close to a hospital (for Marty’s work); no more than an hour from an international airport (both are avid travellers); and plenty of local amenities (a café, a restaurant, a bar, a hardware store and a grocery store). They also needed access to high-speed internet for Stefan to run his online consulting business. WiFi isn’t guaranteed everywhere in Canada, especially in more rural regions.
As for the home itself, their preference was an older, Victorian-style house or mansion with multiple bedrooms. The couple reduced their $600,000 budget to $350,000, knowing that a large, old home would likely come with higher heating and cooling bills and necessary renovations. They also decided to rent out any extra bedrooms for additional income. Stefan had Airbnb-ed his Toronto apartment prior to Marty moving in; guests would sleep in the bedroom and Stefan would stay in the living room behind a divider. “I don’t think either of us dreamt of being innkeepers,” Stefan says, “but if we were going to buy a huge house, we thought we might as well run a bed-and-breakfast to offset some of the costs.”
Stefan and Marty began sussing out which province would best align with their needs. B.C.’s prices were too steep. Alberta had beautiful, large homes within their budget, but very few of them had the required Victorian charm. New Brunswick’s airports didn’t have much international reach. “The equation didn’t start working until we arrived at Nova Scotia,” Marty explains. Of the two of them, only Stefan had visited the province before, on a 2011 trip to visit a friend enrolled at Dalhousie.
It was also Stefan who spotted the listing for a seven-bedroom century home in Windsor, a former ship-building community of 5,000 people located a 45-minute drive from the Halifax airport. “Initially, I passed on it because the pictures were really bad,” Stefan says. The exterior also didn’t have any of the fairy-tale architectural flourishes Stefan was hoping for. Not even a turret. “It didn’t look cute,” he says. “Then Marty mentioned that it had seven bathrooms.”
The house, which was built in 1898 and listed for $339,000, was already operating as a B&B. The owners wanted to retire and had been trying to sell the property for four years. (Before the big pandemic real-estate scramble, it wasn’t unusual for Atlantic properties to sit on the market for that long). Stefan and Marty waded through positive guest reviews, which confirmed the home was in good condition. It was also within walking distance of a café and bar. Covid restrictions prevented Stefan and Marty from touring the property in person. In their place, they sent a Nova Scotia–based realtor, who agreed to beam them in via Zoom. One of Stefan’s childhood friends, who was based in Halifax, tagged along as a second pair of eyes. The couple were wowed by the home’s 10-foot ceilings, original crown moulding and carved wooden staircase, which wound up to the third floor. Five of the rooms had their own fireplaces.
The couple sent in an offer of $320,000. The market was quiet at the time, and, by that point, the Windsor property had been listed for years. The sellers countered with $330,000, but a home inspection revealed some necessary electrical upgrades which would cost about $5,000. By early September of 2020, they settled on a final selling price of $325,000. Luckily, the sellers accommodated a move-in date nine months after the deal closed. Marty still needed to finish his degree.
After graduation, the next big job was getting their belongings to Nova Scotia. The couple hired a moving company to transport the majority of their boxes, then packed their SUV with valuables—including Stefan’s china and silverware collections. (“We were ready to move into an old house,” Marty says, laughing.) When they arrived in Nova Scotia that June, Marty felt a wave of relief. “I was so worried there were going to be huge issues, or the house wasn’t going to exist,” he says of his pre-move-in anxiety spiral. There were a few fun surprises, like a six-foot-tall walk-in safe in the dining room closet and a staircase hidden behind one of the bathroom’s cabinets. “This house has secrets and I was very excited to learn them,” Stefan says.
A delay on the moving company’s end meant Stefan and Marty’s belongings arrived almost a month-and-a-half late, but, luckily, the sellers had left some beds behind so they had somewhere to sleep. Having next to no furniture in the house made renovations easier. The couple got to work updating the heating and electrical systems, repairing the roof and foundation, installing solar panels, fixing plaster cracks and painting their soon-to-be guest suites. Three of the seven bedrooms would be used by Marty and Stefan (one primary bedroom, and an office each), while the rest would be reserved for their paying visitors.
By this past May, all of the guest suites were fully decorated and their B&B was open for business. Stefan and Marty christened it the Geldert Guest House after its first owners, the Gelderts—once a prominent family in Windsor. The couple is now cementing bookings months in advance, and their continental breakfast of baked goods, yogurt and cheese is a hit among their many repeat guests.
Stefan and Marty visit Toronto often, and they admit to missing its vibrant food scene. But running the Geldert’s Instagram account has provided no shortage of socializing opportunities in their new hometown. “I have a strategy I like to call ‘aggressive friending’,” Stefan says. “Everytime someone DMed us or welcomed us to Windsor, I said, ‘Do you want to come over for a coffee or a glass of wine?’” Last fall, the couple hosted a “friendsgiving” dinner at their house for 35 guests—a feast fit for two kings.